Writing this report during the difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am especially grateful that a generous DHS Research and Conference Travel grant helped to fund two essential research trips related to my current book project Selling the Samovar: Women and the Promotion of Russian Craft in the West (provisional title).
Selling the Samovar examines the ways in which women artists and mediators engaged in international networks of art, design, commerce, and women’s emancipation as they established an influential Russian “Arts and Crafts” movement. Although this drew inspiration from national culture, and initiatives to stimulate the revival of craft industries were often locally focused, the art and philanthropic work of this period bear many similarities with developments elsewhere. Moreover, some of the women who emigrated or traveled elsewhere for artistic training placed themselves quite literally into a global framework – crossing Europe by train and taking the steamship to New York, they took Russian art and design with them, sometimes cramming objects for sale into suitcases. Their many activities included exhibitions, meetings, bazaars, and privately organised groups, and at times they collaborated transnationally with other women.
Organised in case studies discussing Russia, Britain, France, and the United States, my book analyses the activities of a select group of artists, writers, and promoters including: Verra de Blumenthal, Maria Vasilievna Iakunchikova, Maria Fedorovna Iakunchikova, Netta Peacock, Alexandra and Anna Pogosskaia, Elena Polenova, Maria Shakhovskaia, Natalia Shabelskaia, Maria Tenisheva, and others. In broad terms, this research contributes to the tasks of reclaiming untold histories of marginalised figures and reassessing national histories within global perspectives.
Both trips also gave opportunities to present research at conferences. In San Francisco, I presented material on pagan imagery in Polenova’s furniture designs at the Annual Conference of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). As the world’s largest gathering of Slavists, this is an excellent forum in which to gain feedback on work in progress. Design history rarely features here, and I was part of a panel on unorthodox religion in late nineteenth-century visual culture. Conveniently, the location was also well suited for book research on the Russian emigration in California, and I made productive visits to the state library and the Museum of Russian Culture. The aim was to contextualise the activities of one of my protagonists, De Blumenthal, an émigré who set up a business exhibiting and selling craft. I had long known her name as the author of an English translation of Russian folk tales, but her craft interests were a recent discovery. This fitted into place, though, as the promotion of Russian culture abroad went well beyond the sale of artefacts; there are so many links to other histories, including those of women’s movements, emerging socialist and revolutionary activism, famine relief, the dissemination of Russian literature (as well as music and theatre), and diaspora culture. Unravelling these links and the lives and activities of the figures who participated forms the backbone of this project.
My second trip, to Moscow in January this year, involved research at the All-Russian Museum of Decorative, Applied, and Folk Arts (“VMDPNI”). I had also been invited to present a conference paper at one of Russia’s principal art museums, the Tretyakov Gallery, which was staging a major winter exhibition on the nineteenth-century artist Vasily Polenov. I chose to focus on his work in “Arts and Crafts”, a topic which has not been properly studied (and, as one of the curators noted after my paper, was largely overlooked in the exhibition). This paper will appear in the Gallery’s conference proceedings published at the end of 2020 and I hope to publish a related article in English.
Either side of the two-day conference I worked at VMDPMI. Importantly, I was able to make a lengthy visit to the current long-term display on “Russian Style”, a beautifully curated showcase of the national revival movement. Although I have worked on this topic for around ten years, the chance to see so many objects on display was a brilliant opportunity for close looking. Then began a period of intense research, using every spare moment. In addition to the exhibition displays, there are three sites for useful work at the VMDPNI: collection, archives, and library. In this instance, the archives were of least use, as these mainly hold twentieth-century material. Much more valuable were the library collections of photographs, exhibition catalogues, and critical texts both old and new. UK libraries have scant holdings on the early history of Russian design and the Arts and Crafts, so I found much that was useful. I waded through several piles of pre-Revolutionary texts on the kustar movement (cottage industries revival), a slow process due to the archaic Cyrillic alphabet. In some cases, the archivist had little to offer on my key names—those women who were taking Russian craft into the international sphere—which seemed to vindicate the importance of this project.
Several VMDPNI staff had attended the Tretyakov conference, and I was invited by the director to give a lunchtime lecture. At short notice, I reworked a previous talk on interest in Russian decorative art at the South Kensington Museum. This was well received, and I left Russia feeling pleased that mutually beneficial relationships had been built. In 2020, these past moments of international dialogue feel especially precious, and I hope to strengthen the contacts made during this trip. This summer, I have been asked to contribute to the Tretyakov Gallery Magazine’s autumn 2020 issue, which accompanies a solo exhibition on the art of Maria V. Iakunchikova. This is now accessible via this link. The Moscow trip is already bearing fruit and the new contacts forged will prove enormously helpful as I continue to progress Selling the Samovar.
Louise Hardiman is an independent scholar specialising in Russian art, the Arts and Crafts, and the history of British-Russian cultural exchange. She completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2014 entitled “The Firebird’s Flight: Russian Arts and Crafts in Britain, 1870-1917”. Her publications include the co-edited journal issue “Abramtsevo and its Legacies: Neo-National Art, Craft, and Design”, Experiment: A Journal of Russian Culture, no. 25 (2019), the translated book by Elena Polenova, The Story of Synko-Filipko and other Russian Folk Tales (London, 2019), and the essay collection Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art: New Perspectives (Cambridge, 2017).
Web: Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre, www.ccrac.org.uk Email: email@example.com Twitter: @louisehardiman